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Astros will prove they’re the real deal

The Astros were first in the league for stolen bases (121) and second in home runs (230) despite having the highest strikeout rate (22.9 percent). (Alex Cruz)
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After six straight losing seasons, three of those as the worst team in baseball, the new and improved Houston Astros won 86 games last season, made the playoffs and are now in contention to win the World Series.

The Astros were first in the American League for stolen bases (121) and second in home runs (230) despite having the highest strikeout rate (22.9 percent). And even that might be underselling how good Houston was last season. The Astros ranked ranked third in run differential (plus-111), suggesting they should have won 93 games. According to base runs, they should have won 97 games. This season, the Astros are expected to win 87 games and run away with the American League West.

2300 (19)It all starts with Jose Altuve, who received MVP votes for the second straight year after batting .313 with 15 home runs, and 38 steals, producing runs at a rate that was 20 percent higher than the league average after factoring in park and league effects (120 wRC+). His 2016 projections have him producing between three and four wins above replacement, slightly lower than his 2015 campaign (4.3 fWAR).

Hitting behind him is George Springer, their 26-year-old outfielder who was limited to 102 games after suffering a broken wrist in July, has a devastating swing and improving eye, cutting his strikeout rate from 33 to 24 percent in one season.

And then there is Carlos Correa, the 21-year-old shortstop and former No. 1 draft pick who was named the league’s rookie of the year after creating runs at a rate 33 percent higher than the league average (133 wRC+), a rate only rookie shortstop Danny Santana (2014) has matched over the past decade.

Overall, look for the Astros to have one of the best hitting lineups in baseball, perhaps behind only the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League.

The Astros have championship pitching, too: they were also the only club to feature two 19-game winners on the roster. Pitcher wins are an unreliable indicator of pitching talent, but Houston’s entire starting rotation was credited with 16 wins above replacement, the second highest total in the American league. Only the White Sox had a more valuable collection of pitching talent.

Dallas Keuchel, the reigning Cy Young award winner, is the ace of the staff, going 20-8 with 216 strikeouts over 232 innings, his highest strikeout rate since he entered the league in 2012.

Keuchel has all but phased out his curve ball, instead relying on three types of fastballs plus a change-up and slider, perhaps his best pitch, holding opposing batters to a .106 average against with 95 strikeouts in 188 at-bats ending on the pitch.

Also set to anchor the rotation are Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers.

McHugh relies mostly on a cutter and curve to keep batters off balance, but it was the former that didn’t fool as many batters as it has in years past.

As a result, McHugh is projected to be slightly less valuable this year: 12-10 with a 2.70 ERA and 3.3 fWAR.

McCullers has a good, sinking fastball, a hard curve, and a reliable change-up, but an innings limit probably caps his upside. Still, he is expected to win eight games and post a sub-4.00 ERA, rounding out an above-average starting rotation.

Their closer, Ken Giles, is a question mark. The 25-year-old saw his strikeout rate drop while the number of walks he issued increased, contributing to an undesirable 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Waiting in the wings is Luke Gregerson, the former closer whose 3.10 ERA last season was higher than you would expect given his underlying numbers (2.86 FIP). His command of the strike zone (5.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio) was also much better than Giles, putting some uncertainty in the bullpen. Still, the relievers should collectively be the fourth-best unit in baseball.

All this adds up to the fourth highest probability of wining the World Series (9.1 percent) But even more than that, the Astros will prove this is a what a successful rebuild looks like, rather than a one-year fluke that still has some work to do.